Excerpt from the Autobiography of Mr. Francis M. Perry, 1921 -


THE GREAT MIAMI HURRICANE OF 1926.


The morning of September 17, 1926 (day before the hurricane) dawned sunny but with scattered billowy clouds racing across the sky above the little town of Hialeah, Florida. A gusty wind was blowing. It felt cooler than usual because of the strong wind. I remember Mama hanging the wash on the lines in the yard and how the clothes billowed out in the wind. It was kind of exhilarating. This kept up all day. The weather report in the morning paper promised thunderstorms and rain for late in the day. There was nothing alarming about the weather that morning nor the weather forecast in the paper.

 

Papa was not at home. Ever since his discharge from the Army in 1918 he had had trouble with his ears. He had a discharge from his ears and at times he had pain. Hoping to get his ear condition cleared up, he had applied to a Veteran's hospital for medical treatment. (Papa was an army veteran of World War 1.) The Veteran's Administration had authorized him to check in at the Veteran's Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. Papa had gone to Jacksonville and on this day was still in the hospital, hundreds of miles north of our little home in Hialeah. Mama was at home with four small children. I was the oldest child at five years. Bert was the next oldest at three and a half. Betty Jo was only two and a half. And Isabell was just five months old.

 

 As night fell there was occasional rain and gusty wind blowing, but still nothing that made Mama feel alarmed. She put all us children to bed in our usual places. As the night progressed the wind gusts got stronger and stronger until the walls of the house were shaking alarmingly. Mama gathered all of us children on her one big bed and sat on the edge beside us. We all slept on soundly, except Mama.

 

Occasionally Mama would go to the window and look out towards our neighbor's house next door. She could see through their windows a somewhat frantic activity going on the their house. They were placing long 2" x 4" braces against the wall and nailing them in place against the wind which was pounding furiously against the wall.

 

At some time after midnight while Mama was sitting on the bed beside her four sleeping children, the wind just picked up the house and carried it some 50 to 100 feet and deposited it on an adjacent vacant lot. As the house settled in its new location, it disintegrated. Mama found herself and all four of us children still on the mattress. The roof was gone and rain was pelting us. The mattress was several feet above the ground on a pile of house wreckage. A timber from some part of the house had fallen across the mattress but, miraculously, had not fallen on any of us children. Wall sections of the house were sticking up around us partially protecting us from the wind. I remember waking up with rain falling in my face. I was right beside Mama on the mattress. She leaned over me and I asked her, "Is this a cyclone?" She said, "Yes. I guess it is." Then I went back to sleep!

 

We sat there on the mattress in the wreckage of our house for some time until the wind began to die down. Actually, the wind died down rather suddenly. Later we learned that it was the calm in the "eye" of the hurricane. The "eye" passed directly over our house, but most Floridians were unaware that there was a calm center within a hurricane. When the wind calmed, our next door neighbors rushed out to the wreckage of our house to try to locate us. Their own house was still standing. The bracing they had placed internally against one wail had saved their house. The neighbors were relieved to find us all safe.

 

Our neighbors urged us to come into their house. But Mama balked at that. Although she knew nothing in particular about hurricanes, she was afraid that the storm was not over, and she did not want to be caught in the disintegration of another house. She asked that she simply be allowed to sit on the ground with her children in an open place with blankets draped over us to protect us from the wind driven sand and rain. They helped us to just such a place and, with our backs to the wind, they draped blankets over us and we held them in place. She held infant Isabell in her arms and we three other children were sitting next to her.

 

Mama was worried about me because, the day before, I had stepped on a sharp nail which had gone into my bare foot and caused a deep wound. She had learned that such wounds could fester and get infected very quickly in the tropical Florida climate. So she consented to let me go into our neighbor's house to have my foot treated in a bi-chloride of mercury solution. I was taken into the house and had settled into a chair with my foot immersed in the solution while the storm was still relatively calm.

 

But very soon the walls of the house began to shake violently. At first the owners of the house felt that the interior bracing they had placed against the wall on the windward side of the house would continue to safeguard the house from disintegration. But they were surprised to learn that the wind was then from the opposite direction and the opposite wall had no bracing. I sat trembling in my chair still soaking my wounded foot. Suddenly someone opened the door of the room and yelled a warning that we must get out of the house for it was beginning to blow away piece by piece. I remember that as the door of the room was opened all the pictures on the wall of the room were torn off and whisked away.

 

All of us in the house joined hands and proceeded out the front door of the house. Too late we realized that we had gone out of the house on the downwind side and pieces of the house were being blown over us. I remember seeing a large piece of the frame of the house sailing through the air towards us. Then I felt a blow to my head. Whoever was holding my hand released me and the wind began tumbling me across the yard. I don't remember being afraid but I was reaching out frantically for something to grab and hold on to. Quickly someone came after me, retrieved me, and walked with me to where my mother was sitting on the ground. The wound to my head was superficial. I simply had a bruised, sore spot where I had been hit. But later I learned that the elderly grandfather of our neighbor's family had also been struck by the same piece of timber. He had been knocked unconscious. Alas. he died about 12 hours later.

 

Back with Mama, I noticed that my brother Bert and my sister Betty Jo were no longer sitting there with her. Only little Isabell was in her arms. Mama then told me that some of the young men of the neighborhood had come by and offered to take Bert and Betty Jo to another house across the road which, although leaning somewhat, was still standing. They had indicated that a number of children were being cared for there. Mama was afraid that she would be unable to properly care for all of us, so she had consented that they be taken to the so-called shelter. We thanked God that that house remained intact and all the children emerged unhurt when the storm was over.

 

I huddled under one of Mama's arms while she held baby Isabell under her other arm. The storm raged for another 4 or 5 hours. The danger to us, huddled in the open as we were, was the blasting effect of the wind blown sand. The paint was literally blasted off the windward side of buildings which stood through the storm. To protect us we were draped with several blankets. We kept our backs to the wind. Occasionally as the storm continued, young men, heros of the storm, came by to see how we were and brought us other blankets for protection.

 

The storm had started about midnight. Some 12 to 15 hours later, just before darkness of the next night set in, the storm abated. Mama and her four children were reunited. We surveyed the area around us. Where once a development of houses had stood, the horizon was bare of houses except for the leaning structure across the road where the children had been, and one lone house standing out like a sentinal about two blocks away. The survivors of the neighborhood were making their way towards that lone house. On our way towards the house we crawled over scattered wreckage.

 

The number of people inside that lone house was so great that each one had only a little floor space on which to lay or sit. There was no electrical power and it was pitch dark. In the house with us was the grandfather who had been hit by the flying timber. He was unconscious but every now and then he would moan. He was being given the best care that was available under the circumstances. During the night he died. But I, being a healthy child. slept soundly all night.

 

The next morning, September 19, 1926, I was surprised to look out into blazing sunshine onto what appeared to be an unending sea of water all around the house stretching as far as one could see. Actually, the average water depth was only a few inches and people were getting around on the roads of the neighborhood. Canned food was brought over from the wreckage of the neighborhood grocer store and meals were prepared. The working men were fed first and then the mothers with their children were fed. During the afternoon cars came down the road and someone came in and offered to take Mama and her children into the town of Hialeah to a shelter there.

 

In Hialeah we were ushered into the lobby of a hotel. We settled down on the floor to one side of the lobby. Soon some men came into the lobby carrying a mattress. Seeing Mama there with four small children, they brought the mattress over to her. We settled there for the next night. We had shelter and usable facilities there such as bathrooms with water. Cooks in the hotel kitchen were bringing out food to those in the lobby. I remember finding a table heaped with donuts from which we could help ourselves.

 

The next day we were ecstatically happy to see Papa walk in the door of the hotel. We had not expected to see him so soon. Papa, in Jacksonville in the veteran's hospital, had received newspaper accounts of the disastrous hurricane even before it had completed its havoc in our area. He had rushed to the train station in Jacksonville to get passage back to Miami. But no tickets were being sold and the ticket agent announced that only doctors and nurses were being allowed on the first special train to Miami. Papa went out on the tracks, found the train being prepared for departure to Miami, and got on. There was standing room only. No one asked him for a ticket and no one challenged him. Many hours later upon arrival in Miami he somehow made his way to the site of our little house near Hialeah. Of course, he found the area scarcely recognizable and he had difficulty identifying the lot on which his house had once stood. He had had no news of his family and he did not know whether we had survived or not. Finally, at the house site he found a neighbor whom he recognized and was able to enquire about us. He thanked God when he heard, "Yes, I saw them after the storm. They are all right. They were taken into the town of Hialeah."

 

Papa then moved us into a shelter being offered within one of the Hialeah church buildings. I remember we found in the church a room full of toys with which we children could play. Leaving us at the church, Papa and Mama went back to our house site to see if there were belongings which they could salvage. They found our large wardrobe trunk which, although water soaked, had sheltered many precious pictures and other family keepsakes. They found a few articles of clothing but almost nothing else could be found. They gathered up these few things and somehow got them to the train depot. Very shortly thereafter, we were all on a train traveling rapidly northward toward Montgomery, Alabama and the welcoming arms of Grandma and Grandpa.

 

To us children, the storm and its aftermath were just a series of adventures. Thanks to the calming influence and confidence that Mama exhibited before us that God would take care of us, I remember little other than being irked at having to remain wet and immobilized during the hours which the storm raged. In the aftermath. we children could sleep soundly almost anywhere. But Mama must have remained almost sleepless for several nights in a row. The proper feeding of little 5 month old Isabell must have been difficult. But especially, the emotional toll on Mama became evident. For many years afterward the frequent onslaught of thunderstorms in Alabama almost made her hysterical. The mere suggestion of possibly taking a family vacation in Florida brought forth from her a rejection such as, "Absolutely no. not me." Although Mama later lived and traveled into many parts of the United States, it was probably 35 or 40 years later before she again ventured, even briefly, into the northern panhandle of the state of Florida.

 

Mama wouldn't talk or even write about her experiences during the hurricane for many years. But, among Mama's keepsakes I was examining many years after her death I found the following partial account which she wrote in pencil on a piece of notepaper.

 

There are a few thousands of people who witnessed with me the terrifying winds of the Florida hurricane of 1926. Everyone seemed to be ignorant of the nature of these hurricanes, and houses were built in a day, not strong enough to stand a good whirlwind.

 

I know there must have been thousands of people who prayed to the Great God above to protect them and their loved ones. I too prayed, for some hours, for God to hold the walls of my little three room house where I with my four babies were alone, the oldest five years and the youngest five months. I took them all on the bed with me and reasoned with myself that all I could do was to lie quietly and pray. It had rained all day Friday and the wind had been strong, but at eleven that night the actual hurricane had hit with Miami in the center.

 

Every breath I drew I prayed God to hold my little house. I had a dog that knew it was not an ordinary storm. She howled in the next room and even the little kitten mewed. But I was afraid to open the door for fear I could not close it again. The wind was blowing through the room (beyond the closed door) as there was no glass in the windows of that room.

 

Some time after three thirty A. M. - the last time I looked at the clock - I dozed off to sleep. I was awakened around seven, I found out later, with the sensation of being carried. When I opened my eyes the house was a total wreck and had been carried across a 50 ft lot to a few feet of the house next door. In a few seconds I saw that we were all still partly on the mattress .... (At this point Mama's penciled account ceased. She later added the following in the margin of the paper.) My husband was in the northern part of the state on business.

 

Fifty years later. on September 19. 1976. The Times Picayane newspaper of New Orleans, LA., published the following article:

 

                                 1926 HURRICANE WARNS OF FUTURE ONES

 

Editor's Note: Fifty years ago this weekend, one of the most deadly hurricanes on U. S. record struck the Miami area, swept across the southern tip of Florida, brushed past Tampa and St. Petersburg, and moved northwest to Pensacola. In the following story. The Associated Press reviews the devastation caused by 'The Great Miami Hurricane' and looks at what could happen if a comparable storm struck today.

 

                                                         By Martin Merzer

 

MIAMI (AP) -'The Great Miami Hurricane' of 1926 killed 400 persons, injured 6,000, left 18,000 homeless, and caused $100 million in damage.

 

When a storm of equal intensity strikes the Miami area again, and experts say such a blow is a certainty, damage might exceed 51 billion. And if residents are as apathetic as officials fear and ignore warnings to evacuate, thousands could die.

 

A head-long plunge toward development of low-lying coastal areas and the fact that an estimated 80 per cent of the three million people living in the area have never experienced a major hurricane, lead experts to this conclusion: the Miami area is a disaster just waiting to happen, and many other coastal regions throughout the United States face similar threats.

 

Fifty years ago this weekend, the Great Miami Hurricane swept ashore under cover of darkness. Although there had been some warning, most of the 300.000 persons living in South Florida were caught by surprise.

 

Later, survivors told a story of screaming winds that built ever higher until they exceeded 140 miles an hour, of fog-like sheets of rain that lashed the area for 12 hours, of eight-foot floods which - driven by waves - moved inland as far as two miles, of buildings collapsing around them, of electric flashes from fallen power lines.

 

A few days after the storm, R. W. Gray, in charge of the Miami weather bureau wrote a report to his superiors.

 

"The hurricane came with great suddenness. Except for a moderate but steady fall of the barometer after 10 a. m. of the 17th, there were no unusual meteorological conditions to herald the approach of the storm," Gray said.

 

"But by midnight, the barometer had begun a precipitate fail and the winds increased until they reached 115 m. p. h. at 5 a. m. on the 18th. About an hour later, the eye of the storm -a phenomenon understood in 1926 only by experts, drifted over the city.

 

"Many persons who had spent the night in downtown buildings rushed out to view the wreckage that filled the streets," Gray said. "I warned those in the vicinity of the Federal Building tht the storm was not over and that it would be dangerous to remain in the open.

 

"The lull lasted 35 minutes, and during that time the streets of the city became crowded with people. As a result, many lives were lost during the second phase of the storm."

 

The story is picked up by L. F. Reardon, a construction contractor who published a diary of his nightwarish experiences. During the passage of the eye, Reardon had left his nearly destroyed house to find food and water for his family.

 

"By the time I had the groceries in the rear of the car, the wind had again risen to about 40 m. p. h.," he wrote. "The storm was returning. Filled with fear and dread, I raced the 20 blocks back to my home."

 

He said the gales reached 80 m. p. h. within five minutes, but this time they came from the southeast.

 

"Would the house withstand this southern gale as well as the one from the north? Upwards, still upwards rose this frightful roar, and steadily it gained velocity..."

 

"With an ear-splitting rush of wind, the large double doors of the living room flew open and the ripping, tearing hurricane found us."

 

Reardon managed to guide his family to safety. Hundreds of others were not so fortunate.

 

The population of the Miami - Fort Lauderdale - West Palm Beach area has increased 10-fold since 1926. Dr. Neil Frank, director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, says 80 per cent of those living in the area and of all persons living on the Gulf and Atlantic coast have never experienced a major hurricane.

 

The 1926 storm would have been rated as a number 'four' on the center's modern scale of one to five. Such a storm has winds of 131 to 155 m. p. h. It is accompanied by a 13 - 18 foot storm surge, which is a wind-blown crest of water similar to a tidal wave. A storm of that intensity can cut escape routes 3 - 5 hours before its center arrives.

 

Frank estimates that 50.000 people live in extremely vulnerable locations on Miami Beach, Key Biscayne and bayfront areas of the mainland. If even 90 per cent are persuaded to flee an on-rushing hurricane, and Frank admits that's an optimistic number, that still leaves 5,000 persons who literally might be swimming for their lives.

 

"I've been reluctant to make statements about what kind of disaster you might have, but I think maybe it's time to be realistic about it," Frank said. "Look, even if a relatively few people ignore the warnings, we've got a disaster because we have so many people here."

 

Frank and other experts, including Civil Defense officials, draw the following model of what could happen if a 1926-type storm hit the Miami area in 1976.

 

Satellite pictures and reports from research airplanes will allow forecasters to give about 18 hours of lead time to residents in the hurricane's path. Officials will broadcast appeals for everyone living in low-lying coastal areas and river banks to evacuate their homes.

 

Those who heed the pleas will find roads crowded - there is only one four-lane escape route from Key Biscayne, which has about 9,000 residents. If a vessel is blown into a bridge or if automobile breakdowns occur, people may be trapped in the open.

 

As the hurricane approaches, the storm surge will sweep over Key Biscayne, Miami Beach and other heavily developed low-lands. Despite relatively stringent building codes, "There are homes on the bay front that there will be nothing left of except the foundation," Frank says.

 

Thousands living in beachfront. high-rise apartments will see their picture windows blown in, but if they retreat to the buildings' inner vestibules above the fourth floor. they probably will be able to ride out the storm.

 

"Tidal bores," narrow. gauge tidal waves, created when the tidal surge sweeps up rivers and canals., will destroy boat harbors and bridges of inland roads.

 

In the heavily developed inland flood plains of Dade and Broward counties, rising waters will flood thousands of homes. But since these waters will not be compounded by waves, they will not pose as great a threat to life.

 

Back on the coast, water might exceed eight feet and waves will drive the water even higher. At high tide during the 1926 storm, the ocean appeared to extend over Miami Beach, over Biscayne Bay and a half-mile into downtown Miami.

 

Also during the 1926 storm, Lake Okeechobee in south-centraJ Florida flooded over its dikes and a 15 foot wall of water inundated the towns of Clewiston and Moore Haven, drowning 250 people. Officials say current dikes should be able to with-stand a similar storm.

 

In 1969, Hurricane Camille crashed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Camille, with the highest rating of five, killed 256 persons.

 

"If we ever get a storm such as Camille, I think 5.000 dead would be conservative," said Edwin Broadwell, a Civil Defense coordinator who lived

through the 1926 Miami hurricane. "And it's not a matter of if, it's a matter

of when."

 

At this writing in 1993 I note that Hurricane Andrew, which slashed across southern Florida in 1991, came close to fulfilling the prophecy of the above

article of 1976.

 

End of article.